Kaua’i’s Tragic Season

March 25, 2013 § Leave a comment

A map of Kaua'i. The sites of recent drowings are marked with X's.

A map of Kauai. The sites of recent drownings are marked with X’s.

Recently I visited Kaua’i, the island I consider my second home. Despite a lot of recent development on the South Shore, Kauai has retained its essential nature: rural, lush and mysterious, with a permanent population of less than 67,000. It is always a pleasure to return.

Of the million visitors came to Kaua’i last year, many were day trippers off cruise ships, while most of the rest stuck mainly to the resorts.But among the more adventuresome, a few befell the accidental deaths for which Kaua’i is notorious: drowning after falling off rocks and cliffs, or after being swept out by rogue waves and rip tides. (It’s not only tourists who drown: the changeable waters that make Kaua’i one of the best surfing spots in the world regularly claim the lives of residents as well.) In 2012, two people drowned off Kaua’i.

2013 has been a different story: between January 18 and March 14, ten people drowned off the island, seven tourists and three locals, exponentially more than in a typical year, let alone a two-month period. Just before my trip, I learned about the first tragedy–in which two San Francisco men drowned after one was swept off rocks by a rogue wave and the other tried to save him–via a New York Times travel article (which, oddly, wasn’t even about Kaua’i). When I arrived, I mentioned the accident to the car rental agent, who said, “The same thing happened yesterday–in the exact same place.”

Then I learned about the other eight drownings (there has since been another). Heart attacks and other health issues seem to have played a role in about half, while three (all in the same place–Kalihiwai, on the North Shore) involved men who walked along the rocky coastline despite posted warnings and either slipped or were swept off by high surf. One drowning was a freak accident: when a sudden flash flood in the Hanakapiai Valley stranded fifty hikers and two rescue personnel, a tourist from New York was swept away by the rising water.

In light of these tragedies, visitors should know that Kaua’i’s waters change seasonally: on the North Shore, the surf is high in the winter and low in the summer, while on the South Shore the situation is reversed. They should never turn their backs on waves, walk in restricted areas such as rocky coastlines, or swim at the mouth of a stream or river, all of which are likely to result in being swept away by waves or currents. Another precaution is one I didn’t know until fairly recently: swimmers should carefully observe the ocean before entering, avoiding places where the waves aren’t breaking parallel to the shore.

Much as I like to think I’ve never had any problems while swimming off Kaua’i, I actually did have one when I was 8, while body surfing at Brennecke’s Beach in midsummer. The waves were big that day, and there was a current that sucked me down after a wave broke on my head. I was upside down in the swirling green water for what seemed like minutes. When I resurfaced, scared and gasping, I found my family strangely unconcerned. Of course they were aware of my habit of swimming underwater in our pool at home, but it was a close call, and one that might have ended differently if I had been less able and less lucky.

As it happens, the most recent incident on Kauai ended as uneventfully as mine. On March 17th two men were swept out off ‘Anini Beach on the North Shore, but one made it back on his own, while the other got an assist from rescuers and reached the shore uninjured. They were lucky, but they also knew not to fight the current; instead, they let it carry them out and release them.

Pulling Back the Kama’aina Curtain in “The Descendants”

November 27, 2011 § 1 Comment

Surveying the Family Legacy in "The Descendants"/Courtesy Fox Searchlight

I was one of those who charged off to see “The Descendants” during its opening weekend. The movie portrays a wealthy lawyer, Matt King (George Clooney) who finds out that his wife, in a coma following a boat racing accident, will  a) not recover, and b) was having an extramarital affair and planning to divorce him. Although I generally dislike family dramas about medical emergencies, moreso if they involve comatose patients, I was interested the movie’s subplot, which concerns the looming sale of land held in a family trust.

The tract in question is a spread on Kaua’i, an island I regard as my second home, and this feature alone would have driven me to “The Descendants.” But I was also interested in the fact that the movie was about a kama’aina (lit. “child of the land,” a term for Hawai’ians of all ethnic backgrounds except pure-blooded Hawai’ian) family descended from haole missionaries and merchants, as well as a Hawai’ian princess. [The author of the book on which the movie is based, Kaui Hart Hemmings, is a member of the Wilcox family of Kauai, whose ancestors include missionaries, plantation owners and a native Hawai’ian whose name she carries. Disclosure: Although I don’t know Hemmings or her family, I did research for my undergraduate thesis at Grove Farm, the Wilcox plantation.]

An obvious model for the King family is the Bishops, who trace their lineage to the haole banker Charles Bishop and his wife Princess Bernice Pauahi, the last descendant of King Kamehameha I. In 1884, Bernice Pauahi Bishop placed the bulk of her estate–vast landholdings throughout Hawai’i–in trust to establish two schools, one for boys and one for girls, called the Kamehameha Schools. The Bishop Trust was originally land-rich and cash-poor, but its fortunes changed radically after Hawai’i achieved statehood in 1959. Land values soared, making the Bishop Trust not only the largest private landholder in Hawaii but the richest charity in the United States, with an endowment larger than Harvard’s and Yale’s combined.

Alexander Payne and his co-screenwriters, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, take great pains to present a realistic portrayal of Matt King’s dilemma in selling the Kaua’i tract for development. As trustee, he must choose the best possible deal for the trust’s heirs, some of whom are in financial need, yet he must also consider his ancestors, whose legacy is spiritual as well as material. King acknowledges that his family did nothing to earn the land, which came to them as a royal dowry through their Hawai’ian ancestor, and in the end defers the sale.

Without this well-conceived and intensely Hawai’ian dilemma, “The Descendants” would be a Lifetime movie, albeit a very well-acted and picturesque one whose locations are both believable and, for the most part, off the beaten track. Other films set in Hawaii tell the stories of visitors, who logically inhabit tourist locations such as Waikiki. For “The Descendants,” Payne and his location scouts do a peerless job of showing how an old kama’aina family like the Kings would live. They have a lovely old house in Nu’uanu, a lush valley on the windward side of the island. Nearby is the Oahu Country Club, the island’s oldest, whose members are glimpsed playing golf. Elizabeth King lies in a coma at Queen’s Medical Center, a straight shot along the Pali Highway from Nu’uanu, and probably the closest hospital to the scene of her boating accident. Matt King takes his younger daughter to lunch at the Outrigger Canoe Club, another exclusive private club, in Diamond Head.  When the family decamps for Kauai, they stay at the Princeville Resort on the North Shore, with excursions to nearby Kilauea and Hanalei Bay. The family’s land appears to be located in Kilauea, though I don’t know this for sure. But all the locations make sense, not only sociologically but geographically, a practically unheard-of feat in feature films.

After countless films about Hawaii’s tourists, it’s nice to see one about people who not only live in Hawaii but call it their ancestral home. Though heavy on bedside scenes in the ICU, “The Descendants” does a good job of portraying the Kings’ milieu, which in itself is reason to go.  

Additional Source:


A New Home in the Hills: Augustus Knudsen in Beachwood Canyon, 1916

February 18, 2011 § 5 Comments

The Knudsen House on Vista del Mar Avenue, Hollywood

Augustus Knudsen outside his house, 1916/All photos courtesy Kauai Museum, Augustus Knudsen Archive

In 1916, the Krotona Colony was in its fifth year–and an established institution by the standards of Hollywood, then in its infancy. Augustus Knudsen’s position as a leading member of the Theosophical Society was underscored by the impressive house he commissioned in 1914 from the San Francisco firm of Mead and Requa. Interestingly, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, Augustus’s widowed mother, was the client of record, a clear indication that she funded the construction of her son’s new home. Located at 2117-2121 Vista del Mar Avenue, the house is now an apartment building, and very different in appearance.

Knudsen by the Arcade at the South End of the House

The photo below was taken not at the house but the Lotus Pond, a Krotona landmark that was located just west of Temple Hill Drive.

Augustus Knudsen at the Lotus Pond, 1916

Additional Source:

“A Survey of Surviving Buildings of the Krotona Colony in Hollywood,” by Alfred Willis. Architronic, 1998.
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Connection, Part IV: Augustus Knudsen’s Passage to India

February 16, 2011 § Leave a comment

The Theosophical Society Headquarters in Adyar, Madras/www.blavatskyarchive.com

In 1896, Augustus Knudsen left Kaua’i for San Francisco. From there, he intended to travel to India and study Hinduism. But in San Francisco, fate intervened when he met the president and co-founder of the Theosophical Society, Henry Steel Olcott.

Henry Steel Olcott, seated at center, and Helena Blavatsky, standing behind him, with spiritual leaders in India/www.ookaboo.com

Olcott (1832-1907) was famous not only as Madame Blavatsky’s partner in the Theosophical Society (which he served as lawyer as well as spiritual leader) but as the best-known, and probably first, person of European descent to convert to Buddhism. Before he embarked upon this unorthodox path, Olcott was a Civil War veteran who fought graft and investigated Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. In 1874, he was hired by the New York Sun and New York Graphic to investigate “spiritual manifestations” at Eddy Farm. There he encountered Madame Blavatsky, a meeting of minds which led to the founding of the Theosophical Society the following year, and to the establishment of its worldwide headquarters in Adyar, Madras (now Chennai) in 1883.

The late 19th century was a boom time for new religions, many of which were concerned with signs of life after death. Olcott’s social stature was shared by many fellow seekers: among his contemporaries who studied Theosophy were William James and Thomas Edison. Olcott’s background as a soldier, lawyer and patriot no doubt boosted the image of Theosophy for those who otherwise would have been skeptical of some of its tenets. 

What attracted Augustus Knudsen to Theosophy was the same thing that drew Olcott’s attentions away from Buddhism: psychic phenomena and occult rituals like seances. In 1896, the newly converted Knudsen traveled to Adyar, where he studied with Madame Blavatsky. By 1898 he was back in San Francisco, where he married Margaret Russell, a Californian with Southern roots.

After their daughter Ruth was born in 1901, Augustus and Margaret returned to Kaua’i. Valdemar had died in 1898, and with only his brother Eric left to run the family businesses, Augustus had a role there. (The youngest Knudsen brother, Arthur, suffered a mental breakdown in his 20’s and remained institutionalized in Boston.) But the marriage foundered when Margaret, a late-in-life mother, became physically and emotionally incapacitated by menopause. According to Ruth,   

[Augustus] kicked her out of the house. And told me later that her illness had interfered with his spiritual development.

The calamity of divorce allowed Augustus Knudsen to make a final break with his life on Kaua’i. Placing Ruth in the care of her grandmother, Anne Sinclair Knudsen, he left Hawai’i, remarried and settled in Hollywood. The house he commissioned on Vista del Mar Avenue would be the gateway to the Krotona Colony, a utopia made real by his devotion to Theosophy–and the family fortune made on Kaua’i.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, Courtesy Kauai Museum.

Theosophical Society Headquarters, Adyar.  http://www.ts-adyar.org/
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part III: The Indelible Influence of Hawai’ian Religion

February 13, 2011 § Leave a comment

Kauai's Menehune Fish Pond/Courtesy http://www.kauaivacation.biz

The Knudsens were major players Kauai’s economy from the late 19th century to the mid- 20th century, producing cattle and sugar and overseeing large tracts of land, but the family’s cultural legacy was at least as significant.Valdemar Knudsen, the patriarch, became fluent in Hawai’ian and made the first written studies of Kauai’s birds and plants. His abiding respect for native customs and religion made him a natural go-between for the Island’s native and haole populations, and his erudition led to his appointment as agent for the Kingdom’s Board of Education. Under King Kamehameha IV, Valdemar became a noble with governing power on Kaua’i.

All five of his children grew up among native Hawai’ians, and in addition to speaking Hawai’ian were well versed in local myths and religious practices. While Eric went on to become Hawaii’s preeminate folklorist, publishing the first English-language books of Hawai’ian myths and legends, his older brother Augustus concerned himself with Hawai’ian religion, a polytheistic faith that incorporated ancestor worship and animism.

Growing up on a ranch in the wilds of western Kaua’i put the younger Knudsens in frequent contact with kahuna  (Hawai’ian priests)–as well as unexplained phenomena. Their sister Ida Knudsen Von Holt writes:

Augustus also claimed to have seeen a menehune on one of his camping out nights. He had been late hunting cattle, and built a fire to keep warm. As he sat eating chocolate and hard tack, he suddenly realized that across from him through the flames he could see a little figure, bushy haired and heavly bearded, and clad only in a malo, and about 18 inches high.

(The menehune, often described as the “leprechauns of Hawaii,” were Hawaii’s pre-Polynesian natives, and engineers of incredible skill. On Kaua’i, they are credited with building the 1,000-year-old fish pond pictured above, as well as the Island’s heiau [temples made of intricately fitted stones]. Though often assumed to be mythological, they probably did exist, though in less tiny form: in Kaua’i’s 1820 census, 65 people described themselves as menehune.)

It was his affinity for Hawai’ian religion that eventually led Augustus to Hinduism, the most polytheistic of the major religions. Back on Kaua’i in the early 1890’s after earning an engineering degree from MIT, and none too happily running the family ranch, Augustus delved further into his newly adopted faith. According to his daughter, Ruth:

…in 1896 he had saved up enough money to go to India. He was sure there was a great connection between India and Hawaii.

But Ruth’s opinion of her father’s religious interests was decidedly jaundiced:

He was interested in the occultism…and black magic.

Additional Sources:

Oral History of Ruth Knudsen Hanner, courtesy Kauai Museum.

Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago: Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughter of Hawaii, 1985.


For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

The Krotona Colony’s Kaua’i Roots, Part II: Augustus Knudsen’s Enchanted Childhood

February 2, 2011 § Leave a comment

When Anne Sinclair married Valdemar Knudsen in 1867, she moved from her family’s “forbidden” island of Ni’ihau, whose population numbered in the low hundreds, to the comparatively populous but still rural Kaua’i, 17 miles to the east. Though Kaua’i had some towns–Hanalei to the north, Kapa’a and Lihue to the east, and Koloa to the south, the Knudsens lived on a ranch at the western end of the Island, not far from where the road ends and the Napali Coast begins.

The remoteness of their home, Waiawa, was underscored by its proximity to Polihale, an enormous white sand beach considered by Kaua’i’s natives to be “the place from where the souls of the dead descended to Po in the ocean depths,” according to Ida Knudsen Von Holt, Anne and Valdemar’s eldest daughter.

The Knudsens’ five children–Ida, Augustus, Maud, Eric and Arthur–were born between 1868 and 1875. Boys and girls alike galloped horses, surfed, swam, camped and hunted. From infancy they were taken to visit their maternal grandmother in Ni’ihau, a trip that started on horseback at 2am and ended after a 5-hour crossing in a whale boat rowed by Hawai’ians over rough seas. All the children spoke fluent Hawai’ian, as did their father, and had the peerless survival skills of both parents. Their mother, whose own childhood was spent in the wilds of New Zealand, seems to have been unfazed by danger. Wrote Ida:

I remember once when some one asked Mama how she could  bear to have her children running along the cliffs of the Waimea Canyon, hunting wild cattle, exploring the Alakai Swamp, etc., she replied, ‘If they are so fool-hardy as to fall over [the side of Waimea Canyon], or become lost, I tell them it will be good riddance to bad rubbish.’

But  Anne and Valdemar, both products of prosperous, educated families, were equally dedicated to their children’s formal education. At the ranch, Anne began the day by teaching them reading, writing and music. Then Valdemar would take over, teaching math and German before turning the children loose to collect plant samples for their botany class. An amateur ornithologist who was the first to catalog the Island’s birds, Valdemar also taught his children astronomy and Norse folklore.

The Knudsen children’s home-schooling culminated in a nearly three-year family stay in Berlin and Vienna, where they were enrolled at various academies and conservatories. They completed their educations in Boston, the girls at finishing school and the boys at Harvard and MIT. 

Valdemar Knudsen and His Children in Vienna, 1885

Kaua’i was home, but the Knudsen children’s splendid educations were a springboard for their varied destinies. Ida, a conservatory-trained musician, became a patron of the arts in Honolulu while raising a large family in the adventuresome style of her own childhood. Maud became a talented painter as well as a wife and mother. Eric, in addition to running his father’s businesses, had a distinguished political career in Hawai’i and became a noted folklorist. But it was Augustus who broke with the family, and with Kaua’i. Though he became an engineer as Valdemar had wished, and returned to Kaua’i for a time to run the family ranch, he was far more passionate about astronomy and religion. It was the latter interest, which he attributed to encounters with kahuna (Hawai’ian priests), that drew him to India and Hollywood, places far removed from his childhood paradise.

Additional Source for quotes and photos: Von Holt, Ida Elizabeth Knudsen. Stories of Long Ago, Niihau, Kauai, Oahu. Honolulu: Daughters of Hawaii, 1985.
For more about the Krotona Colony, purchase the documentary “Under the Hollywood Sign” at http://hopeandersonproductions.com/?page_id=3361
The film is also available for rent at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/uths

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Kaua’i category at Under the Hollywood Sign.